Skip to content
  1. Latest News

UCONN Today: Demolishing Schools After a Mass Shooting Reflects Our Deep-Rooted Desire for Purification Rituals

From UCONN Today: After the recent shooting in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers, some local residents want the school demolished. Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez said that President Joe Biden has offered to help the school district secure a federal grant for the building’s demolition. This is not uncommon. In numerous similar cases, buildings were knocked down, abandoned or repurposed in the aftermath of a tragedy. After the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, that school was destroyed and rebuilt on a different spot on the same property, at a cost of US$50 million. And in 1996, the town of Gloucester in England bought the house where a couple, Fred and Rosemary West, raped, tortured, and killed 12 young women. The town razed the property to the ground, burned all timber, pulverized each brick and dumped the debris at a secret location before turning the lot into a park. At a visceral level, this seems obvious: Most people would be uncomfortable carrying on business as usual at the site of a bloodbath. But as an anthropologist who studies some of the most meaningful human experiences, I know that human reactions that feel obvious may often be hard to explain. Why would tearing down and rebuilding it make the situation any better? The answer lies in human psychology. Notions of Contagion Research suggests that we, as humans, are natural-born essentialists. That is, we intuitively think of objects as having certain immaterial inner qualities or essences, which can be transmitted through contact. For instance, participants in an experiment conducted by psychologists Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin refused to wear a sweater that belonged to a serial killer, although they were happy to wear an identical sweater that belonged to someone else. These intuitions can be observed outside of the laboratory as well. For instance, a study conducted in Hong Kong looked at the effects of death on real estate prices. As it turns out, when a murder, suicide or fatal accident occurred in a house, its market value decreased by as much as 25%, and even nearby properties lost part of their value. Early anthropologists described this as a form of “magical thinking.” Scottish anthropologist James Frazer argued that this type of reasoning rests upon two basic principles common in all human societies. The first is the “law of similarity,” the idea that physical resemblance implies some deeper connection. This explains the belief found in many cultures that stabbing a doll that resembles a person could cause harm to that person. Read more at UCONN Today.

CHIBE Experts

Research Areas